Sun Ra and his Arkestra: an appreciation

The most unfindable musical artist of the 20th-century was Sun Ra. As someone with a rock perspective who has purchased records & music since childhood, there is no artist as confounding as Sun Ra and his Arkestra. His classic Saturn records were pressed in limited quantities, usually 75-100 at a time, and were only available through the mail, at live performances, and in select neighborhood record stores in Chicago & New York.

It wasn’t until his Philadelphia period (1972-1992) when his music began to become available to consumers in big-chain & indie record stores. Sun Ra signed to ABC/Impulse in 1973 for a huge multi-record deal, and delivered them in amazing speed, but was quickly deleted when new management took over ABC in 1975– and was never paid. That’s how it goes in the music business, and few knew it better than Sun Ra.

Sun Ra knew how to survive & sustain and he did it in an ever-creative way. He lasted because he retained the joy of music which is what keeps us young. It’s the kids who always decide what’s hip & cool in music, and to maintain the leading edge in avant-garde jazz for 40 years, Sun Ra made it a point to stay in tune with new music of all genres. This is an artist who completely absorbed all the classic songbooks & jazz standards of pre-WW2 popular music, and was more musically advanced than Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, etc, the pioneers of be-bop.

Sun Ra’s Supersonic Jazz (1956) through Jazz in Silhouette (1958) are indisputable jazz masterpieces. Early Sun Ra and his Arkestra compares favorably to Miles Davis during his classic John Coltrane Quintet era. That’s where Sun Ra starts. From there, he launched a vessel known as his Arkestra, which was meant to take your mind into outer space. In doing this, Sun Ra left the rest of the jazz world in his space dust.

There was too much corruption & evil on planet Earth, so Sun Ra sought an outward trajectory for his music & live act. And Sun Ra had possibly the greatest act ever. It was an assault on the audience’s senses, in musical & visual terms. The crazy costumes & all his theatrics kept people at a distance and off-balance. This created a safe space for Sun Ra & his band to perform.

This is revolutionary music which still resonates, and thus Sun Ra had to be careful with politics during his lifetime. As a black man from the Deep South, he learned that he would never be taken seriously by white intellectuals in the 1950’s and beyond, so he was better off creating a myth of himself and then used that myth as a vehicle to drive his music.

Sun Ra maximized his influence by minimizing his political risk. Sun Ra was never a socialist politically, but it is in his music and how he lived. Sun Ra and his Arkestra lived communally so they could rehearse & play whenever Sun Ra needed them, which was all the time. There was never any money, so things were shared. Sun Ra lived by many socialist principles without identifying himself as a socialist. Ultimately, this carries more artistic weight than his Afro-futurist act, no matter how much he believed it.

Sun Ra was very much a black man, meaning he was proud of his race and wanted to help others like him. While he had dalliances with the Black Panthers & other such organizations, he never fully subscribed to any of their programs of black nationalism or militancy. Sun Ra and his Arkestra were thrown out of the Black Panther house in Oakland in 1972 because of this. It was Eldridge Cleaver & COINTELPRO that forced the split. Sun Ra was a black universalist, as opposed to a black nationalist– a man of the Omniverse (1979).

One of the great ironies (and there are many) of Sun Ra’s music is that it was often more accepted by white audiences (particularly European), than by black listeners of his day. As an avant-garde artist in NYC, Sun Ra  co-mingled with the Velvet Underground & MC5, and were very influential on acts such as Funkadelic & Pink Floyd.

It’s important to understand that when someone mentions “Sun Ra,” they are also talking about an Arkestra of virtuoso musicians. John Gilmore was at least the equivalent of John Coltrane on tenor sax. Marshall Allen & Danny Davis were virtuoso multi-instrumentalists in the alto range on sax & woodwinds. Pat Patrick had one of the fattest baritone sax sounds ever. Ronnie Boykins could coax sounds out of his stand-up bass that brings you to tears & makes you shiver. Everyone played percussion at some point, as Sun Ra used polyrhythms & percussion-as-texture better than the rest.

June Tyson added the dimension of a woman’s voice to what up to that point was an entirely black male ensemble. June Tyson joined the Arkestra in 1968 (or so), and would stay with Sun Ra until her death from breast cancer in November, 1992 at age 56. June Tyson never recorded with another artist. Sonny died 6 months later, and John Gilmore, who was in deteriorating health for years, died in August, 1995 at age 63.

Other significant members of the Sun Ra Arkestra over the decades included: Tommy “Bugs” Hunter, Clifford Jarvis, Robert Cummings, Ali Hassan, Roger Blank, Teddy Nance, Jimhmi Johnson, Chris Capers, Pharoah Sanders (whom Sonny named), Danny Ray Thompson (who also doubled as Sonny’s de facto manager), Akh Tal Ehah, Eloe Omoe, James Jacson, Dale Williams, Hayes Burnett, Samarai Celestial, and many, many more.

Perhaps the most confusing & challenging part of Sun Ra’s music is the space chord, which is when members of the Arkestra all wailed different tones on their instruments as loudly as they could at the same time. This is Sun Ra calling for a space chord, which creates a LOUD combination of sounds– full of tones, harmonics & rhythms that will change the flow of the music. Sun Ra developed this disciplined/undisciplined avant-garde compositional technique to allow free improvisation to move forward, finding new forms & creative directions.

Sun Ra was a master talent collector. If you’re going to build something that lasts 40 years, and then beyond your Earthly death, you constantly need fresh talent. This infuses the artist and provides what is needed to innovate with new ideas. Musical talent means you can play well and have a passion to be part of something remarkable. Sun Ra’s reputation as a master made it easier to find the talent he needed, and he was always receptive to it, where most old-guard musicians (in any genre) feel threatened by young talent.

As an artist you have to learn to go with the flow, when the general direction is forward. You can influence more effectively if you stay young in the mind, and that’s the revolutionary concept behind the music of Sun Ra. By orienting towards youth & new ideas, Sun Ra transcended much of mainstream jazz, as well as capitalist politics.

Sun Ra was the pioneer of Afro-futurism which can be defined as a black astrological myth. As mentioned, it was a great act. Sun Ra read a lot of books, but mostly obscure ones, it appears. John Szwed’s biography Space is the Place (1997) lists a lot of them as books on numerology, Egyptian mythology, etc, along with sci-fi space travel and NASA/UFO stuff.

I don’t criticize Sun Ra for his taste in books, but I will say this limited him intellectually when it came to dealing with the Frankfurt school of post-modernism (Paris pseudo-intellectuals praising him with babble), and the powers of the state. Sun Ra didn’t dare approach Marxism, because the era of HUAC and red-baiting anti-communism made it impossible for him to do so.

Sun Ra would tell people he came to this Earth from Saturn (the planet of disciple & sacrifice) to make his music which humanity needed, and nothing was going to interfere with that. Marxism would have blacklisted Sonny forever, and then no one would have heard of Sun Ra. Sonny was smart enough to know the circumstances that limited him, and then adapt.

There are so many sides to his genius, and it takes a long time and a lot of listening to even begin to get your head around Sun Ra. Ask any fan. The best place to start is anywhere you can. But if you are reading this with serious interest, then you really owe it to yourself to get a few Saturn records. In total, all his eras are filled with amazing titles, and what you like often depends on individual taste & preference.  By 1986, his releases are compact disc format. Mayan Temples (1990) is his last release before he was debilitated by a series of strokes in November 1990. He still went on stage, but could no longer perform the Sun Ra magic. By the end of 1992, Sonny had to return to his family in Birmingham, Alabama due to terminal illness. Sun Ra died of complications from pneumonia on May 30, 1993 at age 79.

Leadership of the Sun Ra Arkestra has since been assumed by Marshall Allen (above), the only original member remaining. In 2020, at age 96, Marshall Allen recorded & released Swirling, perhaps the final Sun Ra Arkestra studio recording. Marshall Allen still lives in the House of Ra, which he owns in Germantown, Philadelphia. I hope that place becomes a registered national landmark at some point. It should be already.

What Sun Ra did was impossible. There was no money. This avant-garde keyboardist, composer & bandleader was an outcast of the jazz world because he broke too many rules and never apologized for it. The gatekeepers never forget that, and up to today their wrath towards Sun Ra still applies. In this era of vinyl re-issues for everyone, too many Sun Ra titles are still hard-to-find or ridiculously overpriced in the re-sale market. No one deserves a contemporary & comprehensive catalog re-issue more than Sun Ra.

Sun Ra is still being suppressed because his music is revolution. If people widely discover Sun Ra, then all of a sudden all those lame mainstream records will never sell again. “The Network” can’t have that, and neither can the artificial & overpriced re-sale market. That’s why there aren’t very many Sun Ra records available when you first look for them.

By the 1970’s Saturn Record releases became more infrequent, as Sonny was suspicious that his business partner Alton Abraham wasn’t giving him all the money he deserved, so he began making deals with any label he could. Sun Ra also formed a new label with a NYC partner and called it Enterplanetary Koncepts, which pressed & distributed his records. Today, many classic Saturn titles have been re-issued on Enterplanetary Koncepts, and other labels including Cosmic Myth and Evidence. As a starving artist the motto is: Anywhere you can find the money. Thus, there were a lot of record labels that issued Sun Ra recordings.

Modern Harmonic is a great record label that is active in re-releasing classic Sun Ra titles, as well as unreleased stuff. Artyard is a UK indie label that is also keeping the faith in Sun Ra. Artyard was a distributor of a few key Ra titles including Horizon (1971) Antique Blacks (1974), Sleeping Beauty (1979), and On Jupiter (1979). Many of Sun Ra’s 1970’s live albums from Europe & beyond were off-label releases. In the 1980’s, more of his studio projects fell to such labels too.

  • BTW, in parenthesis after the title, is listed the recording date, not the release date. Sun Ra makes you do this, otherwise his catalog is a mess, because many early Saturn records were recorded in Chicago (1954-60), but not released until many years later when he was based in NYC (1961-70). When sequencing Sun Ra titles, do it by recording date and they will make more sense when listening.

Sun Ra creates difficulties that you never face with any other artist. His catalog is well over 200 albums, plus singles & EP’s. Since his death, there has been a plethora of new releases, new-found tapes, live concerts, compilations, etc. The hardest part is figuring out what you need, and what you can pass on. A lot of that depends on your taste and (of course) your budget.

About a dozen Saturn albums from Chicago, and 20+ NYC-era albums are essential, with the later being more space music. By summer 1970, Sun Ra finally began to tour Europe & the world. There are a lot of live concert recordings from this period up until his death. This is where you have to be picky, and identify titles in eras of interest.

For me with live Sun Ra, it’s the early mini-Moog stuff from 1970-71 that excites me the most. It’s a historical fact that Sun Ra was the first to perform live with a mini-Moog. See the liner notes in the 2012 re-issue of My Brother the Wind, Vol 1 (1970) for details on this. There are now at least 100 titles of live Sun Ra, so listen first on YouTube, etc, and decide on what you like. I estimate there are, at minimum, about 75 titles (65 studio, 10 live) that you need to understand Sun Ra’s music.

Sun Ra made so many live albums because 1) he invested in the technology early and learned how to use it; and 2) it made him money. Sonny learned how to record himself early, so when his Arkestra finally launched in the mid-1950’s, he completely understood micing, acoustics & recording principles so well that he would always get the best recording the available technology would allow. Sun Ra was his own sound engineer & producer [!] for most of his career. When he was finally recognized as an artist in Europe in the summer of 1970, Sun Ra started recording every concert he could, and would do so until he couldn’t physically go on stage anymore. If the tapes didn’t get lost, damaged, destroyed, etc, it almost always turned into a record release, sooner or later. It’s still happening.

Philadelphia-era has some of the hardest-to-find Sun Ra albums. For instance, in January 1978, Sun Ra went to Rome with John Gilmore, trumpeter Micheal Ray, and drummer Luqman Ali to record as the ‘Sun Ra Quartet.’ Those are hard-to-find and expensive when you do. A few other off-label/European releases such as Cosmos (1976), etc, are coveted Sun Ra oddities.

It’s a crazy market for Sun Ra, and it will test all of your skills as a music connoisseur & consumer. It’s a great unknown world, with mind-blowing rewards, but all kinds of snares & pitfalls to discourage you. For example, many Sun Ra titles have more than one cover image. Some titles are different names for another already-existing record, such as Jazz by Sun Ra, Vol 1 (1956), which is also titled Sun Song (1956) on a different record label. Cosmo-Earth-Fantasy (1974)  and Sub-Underground #1 (1974) is another example of this. Live in Egypt, Vol 1 (1971) and Dark Myth Equation Visitation (1971) is yet another. It’s easy to buy duplicates of what you already have because things are so confusing.

AllMusic normally has a reliable artist discography, but for Sun Ra it’s a mess. AllMusic still lists The Sound of Joy (1956) as Sun Ra’s first album, when it’s actually his third. It gets worse from there, with bad dates and disorganized titles up & down his regular album & compilation discographies. This makes everything tougher for someone trying to research Sun Ra, and is part of the subtle censorship he still receives. AllMusic would never let this happen to Count Basie or Wynton Marsalis.

The John Szwed biography is essential, and the 2020 edition has a correct discography for his albums & singles which lists by recording date. Sun Ra records make a lot more sense when you can play them in order, as there is a logical progression to his catalog. But you need to know the correct sequence. Most artists don’t present this problem, but with Sun Ra it’s a different world, as he created much of this confusion by design.

It’s difficult to make comparisons to Sun Ra because he was such a unique figure in jazz music. Only Duke Ellington & Miles Davis have his longevity of relevance, but they both fit squarely within the mainstream and were critically accepted in their day. Sun Ra’s acoustic piano playing is comparable to Thelonious Monk, but Ra was also the master of all electric keyboards, which Monk wasn’t. Sonny was the first to record with electronic keyboards– in 1956. He could play the clavioline (precursor to the analog [Moog] synthesizer), all types of electric organs, rocksicord (electrified harpsichord), and finally Moog synthesizer & mini-Moog. Sun Ra was arguably the most prolific & aggressively experimental synthesizer artist ever.

Sun Ra was avant-garde, which doesn’t get the respect it deserves, particularly with the critics who are supposed to be fair & unbiased, but really are not. Influential critics from Nat Hentoff to Scott Yanow clearly have their favorites & pariahs, and Sun Ra is the latter for them. Outside of jazz, Fela Kuti, the multi-instrumentalist Afro-beat artist from Lagos, Nigeria; Brian Eno; and Sonic Youth, an art-rock band from NYC, are probably Sun Ra’s best comparables.

What makes Sun Ra an artist of special interest is that he’s a 20th-century figure who will be more appreciated in the 21st-century & beyond. There’s a lot to learn from Sun Ra. He started his Saturn label as a way of taking control of his music. He did it in the 1950’s when no other artist comprehended doing such a thing. He created an inimitable persona to protect & promote himself. He lasted & was prolific, building an Arkestra that continued on after his death. Sun Ra humbles you because an as artist you know you will never come close to matching his output, and he inspires you by opening your mind to new creative possibilities. That’s the dialectical rub which makes Sun Ra so magical & revolutionary.